Star Trek Movie’s 40th anniversary, Superintelligence and the Singularity
Riz Virk is an entrepreneur, angel investor, bestselling author and founder of Play labs @ MIT.
Why the Boring Motion Picture is Actually More Relevant
Today than It was 40 years ago
Last week, I went to see the 40th anniversary re-release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (or ST:TMP for short). I had seen the movie as a kid when it first came out in 1979, after seeing many episodes of Star Trek via re-runs pretty much every-day throughout the 1970s (which were responsible for increasing the show’s popularity since it had been cancelled after 3 seasons after its debut in 1966).
The 40th anniversary screening had a little featurette before the movie that had some of the actors and producers talking about the onerous process of bringing this troubled movie to the screen (it was
called The Longest Trek: Writing the Motion Picture,”).
Seeing it again now, after all these years, I was struck by a few different things about the movie and its history that I either didn’t know or hadn’t thought about. For one thing, the re-issue had the same music as the TV show Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST:TNG) n, which struck me as odd. In fact, as far as I remembered that music wasn’t composed until the TV show started in 1987, many years later! (A quick search reveals that in fact, it was composed for TMP and re-used in TNG ).
From the featurette, we also learned that Star Trek fans can
thank George Lucas for Paramount deciding to bring Star Trek back to the big screen. The studio was originally thinking of starting a new TV network and bringing it back as a TV shown (called “Phase II”). The success of Star Wars on the big screen in 1977 sent executives scrambling for science fiction properties they could turn into a big budget blockbuster – and Star Trek seemed to fit the bill.
While the film had a troubled history (and the featurette
did a good job of pointing out all the problems and conflicts between Gene
Rodenberrry, the director Bob Wise and other producers and writers), the real problem with the film was that it was deemed pretty boring. Some fans even went so far as to dub TMP “The Motionless Picture”.
I still remember the reviews in the Detroit News on the weekend when the movie was released in December, 1979 – they were calling it “Star Trek: the Boring Picture”. My brother and I still made our parents take us to see it –being huge fans of Star Wars, we couldn’t pass it up. As a 9-year-old, like millions of others, reacted that the visuals were cool but lack of action made it much less fun than George Lucas space opera. At the time I
wasn’t really thinking about some of the bigger issues that this movie brought up.
Which brings me to watching it on this 40th anniversary for its re-issue. The thing that struck me about the movie the most, this time, seeing it in 2019, (other than how young the stars, like William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, et al, looked). was how relevant this move is to things we are actively discussing in Silicon Valley today: Artificial Intelligence, super-intelligence,
transhumanism, digital consciousness, and space travel.
In fact, Star Trek : The Motion Picture might be more relevant to today’s computer savvy generation than it was to the audience in 1979! The movie is all about issues that we may have to deal with in the not too far future and which make for many bestselling books in science and computer technology today. I’m surprised Elon Musk isn’t talking about the movie, since it pre-supposes many things that he’s been on record talking about around AI and the future.
Seeing it in Silicon Valley at the Shoreline Century theater, which is pretty much located on the Googleplex, made it even more relevant. Of course, it’s Google futurist Ray Kurzweil who is known for popularization the term the “singularity” (which was actually invented by another science fiction writer and former computer science professor, Vernor Vinge). It is referred to today, depending on who you ask, as a point at which the exponential growth of artificial intelligence will exceed human intelligence, or the point at which we can encode our consciousness as digital information, or in various other ways describing the advance of technology.
Before we get into the film’s relevance, let’s do a quick recap for those who haven’t seen or don’t know the plot of the movie:
Captain Kirk, who is now Admiral Kirk, misses being a starship captain. When the Enterprise has been fully remodeled and almost ready for operation, a strange large cloud is headed towards Earth, making mincemeat of the Klingons and anyone else it has encountered along the way.
Since the (not-quite finished) refurbished Enterprise is the only ship in the sector capable of intercepting it in time, and Kirk takes over from Will Decker, the new captain, owing to, well being the star of the TV show, of course! They eventually learn that the cloud contains an entiy called “V’ger” that has significantly more advanced technology than even our twenty second century Starfleet has.
Big Spoiler Alert: V’ger turns out to actually be one of the
Voyager spacecraft that NASA sent out into the galaxy in the 1970s (as of 1979, there had been only 2 Voyager probes, while the one in the movie, V’ger is actually the Voyager 6 probe). On its travels, it had encountered a super-intelligent planet of advanced machines. They looked at the primitive Voyager craft as kind of stupid long lost cousin, and they spiffed it up: making it much more intelligent and capable of fulfilling its mission of seeking out all the knowledge in the universe and then returning to its “creator” to transmit it. The problem is that this new super-intelligent entity doesn’t know who its creators are – it assumes the creator is a machine like itself, and is surprised to find the carbon-entities which have (from its perspective) infested the 3rd planet from the sun (umm, that would be us, by the way) and is prepared to destroy them as it looks for its creator.
Whew! OK that is a lot to process – though most of it is learned in the last part of the movie ( more on the plot, the visuals and why it was considered so boring here
Not only do I think the movie is more relevant today than it
was 40 years ago when it was released, but I would offer that it will be even more relevant in 40 years. Consider the following plot points which reveal
issues that we as a civilization will be grappling with in just a few years:
A machine that becomes self aware and super-intelligent.
At the heart of the movie is V’ger, a machine that was a standard automaton which has become much more intelligent than its original programming. In a way, the machine has evolved (in this case, with the help of other super intelligent machines) and has amassed way more knowledge than its creators have.
Today, in Silicon Valley, AI is a hot topic. The point at which silicon-based intelligence will “surpass” our biologically based intelligence is still speculative, but we are much closer to realizing this than we were in 1979. At that time, there were no semi-intelligent robots or algorithms (neither neural nets nor machine learning algorithms had been invented).
We now think of AI as being separate from the “machine” itself – AI is the software (or more accurately, software and data). However, when the field of AI was new in the 1950s, pioneers like Claude Shannon and Alan Turing and others thought of intelligent “machines” that would play chess, that would pass the “imitation game” (known today as the Turing Test),
machines that could write poetry, etc.
Today, we have robots like Sofia (which is not yet able to pass the Turing Test), and we have trained algorithms which have beaten humans not just in chess, but in Go and even in esports competitions, and which generate realistic vocals (google duplex) and even can generate realistic text (open AI’s GP2).
Could Hardware/AI that we create become self-aware? This is a question that further Star Trek series – namely, TNG with the android Data – have grappled with. Estimates of the singularity range from Kurzweil’s predictions of 2048 to “never”.
Was V’Ger self aware? It certainly acted liked it. Was Data a “real” person with “real” rights? This is an issue we that scientists are just beginning to grapple with but its ultimate impact go well beyond science to matters of politics, human rights, consciousness, religion and ethics. As our technology develops, we will be grappling with these questions more intensely in the years to come: what is intelligence and what is self-awareness?
Downloading and encoding a biological entity.
One of the overlooked aspects of the movie is that V’ger digitally encodes biological entities into information – in one scene, the Deltan, Ilia, is “transported by V’ger” – transported to where? V’ger reveals
that it has digitally encoded many beings that it has encountered in its
explorations across the galaxy, just like it did with her. Most people remember Ilia as the sexy bald lady who was wearing a short skirt and high heels. But the heel-wearing version of her was actually a reconstruction that V’ger created from its stored representation of her atoms and cells, to make it easier to communicate with the “carbon units” like Kirk.
Many in the neuroscience field today think that reproducing a human, or downloading them to a silicon device, is simply a matter of modeling all of the neurons and neural connections. Researchers at MIT have been able to do this mapping with rat brains but not with human brains – yet. In this line of thinking, all that’s needed is more computing power and more knowledge of the neural mappings, which effectively allows for digital immortality, allowing the reproduction to “live forever”.
Actually this idea of “encoding” a person as information has been part of Star Trek lore since before TMP, with the invention of the transporter. This was initially done to save money on special effects since TOS (the original series) had a limited budget and they couldn’t shoot shuttles going up and down to planets. But the transporter has a matrix – which is really the information of the person. In that case, it’s all of the atoms that make up the person. Both the transformer and V’ger’s encoding of Ilia bring up a very important question we’ll have to tackle in the years to come: is a reproduction of the information of a person the same as the person? Or is it a copy? In the V’ger case in TMP, the reconstructed Ilia starts to remember her interactions with Will Decker, with whom she had a relationship with on her home planet of Delta IV. We’re not there yet, but who’s to say that in another 40 years we won’t be?
A planet full of machines.
Another key plot point overlooked in this movie is that Voyager, in its travels, came across a planet of intelligent machines. It was because of the machines on this planet took pity on Voyager that it was upgraded and V’ger was born. Could it be possible that there are planets that only have AI or machines?
We don’t think it’s possible without a biological civilization first creating the machines. Elon Musk recently postulated that biological lifeforms (like us) could simply be boot-loaders for intelligent AI’s meaning that this would be the normal course of evolution! This would mean that the planet of intelligent machines started out with biological entities, who created the AI’s and then somehow went extinct (or were destroyed by the machines, or originated on another planet and sent out the machines to this planet). In fact, many scientists believe that given the distances involved in interstellar travel, the only interstellar travelers will be machines – drones if you will, in which case, the Voyager probes (and the Pioneer probes before them) are the first generation of the much more sophisticated machines that we will send out in the future. Already we are exploring other planets in our solar system using artificial explorers.
Will we find planets where the biological beings are gone and only AI
remains? Will other explorers arrive on Earth in several thousand (or a million years) and find that we are “planet full of machines”? Or will they be machines wondering about the “infestation of carbon units”?
Destruction of Humans by the Machines. How would a planet that started with people end up with only machines? This is a popular theme in science fiction that has come out since, ranging from The Terminator to The Matrix. In TMP, when V’ger doesn’t get back a response to its call to find its creator, it assumes that the carbon-based entities (i.e. people) have killed the creator and occupied the planet. It sends out probes, using its advanced knowledge of weaponry and energy, around the Earth which when activated, will “cleanse” the planet of the infestation of carbon units so that only the machines remain.
Could AI really destroy us? Many, including Musk, are worried that developing autonomous weapons and AI which is in control of weapons is a very likely outcome of the next stage of technology development.
Over 2000 scientists signed on to a document which warned of the dangers to the human race of developing AI that is both self-aware and
super-intelligent which is in charge of weapons. Like V’ger or Skynet, it might decide it doesn’t need us. Or if it does need “carbon units” it might need only a small percentage of the human population and enslave us.
AI and It’s Lack of Emotional Intelligence.
While V’ger has gained considerable knowledge in its explorations, it has no understanding of human emotions, and for it to continue to evolve, it needs to “merge with its creator”. While this is a crude representation, it’s a theme that would be explored further in Star Trek and much more science fiction. TNG’s Data’s quest to be more human, culminating in an “emotion” chip, raises a host of questions about the nature of consciousness and beings.
Should we imbue our AI with emotional intelligence as well as knowledge
of the physical world? Would this make it less likely or more likely that the
AI would try to destroy us? One of the haunting aspects of a movie like Deux Machina is that the androids could appear completely human but be devoid of emotion and be indifferent to suffering – a trait in humans which is associated with a psychopathic personality.
This question, of how much emotion to put into AI and whether it’s even possible, will be much more relevant 40 years from now. So will the “merging” of man and machine. Companies like Musk’s Neuralink are trying to create implants which use AI to make us more intelligent so thatAI won’t ever be able to overtake us completely. The transhuman movement seems to be all about merging technology with biology. This field is also still nascent and I suspect we’ll still be talking about it 40
Star Trek has always been ahead of its time. When the Original Series (TOS) came out in the 1960’s, the idea that a Russian would be serving on the multi-ethnic crew to outer space was completely new to American audiences. The first interracial kiss on broadcast TV happened on TOS as well (and was boycotted by many stations in the south). ST:TNG tackled many innovations and questions for the first time on TV, and it was the first TV show to have its own special effects budget.
By contrast, ST:TMP is not often remembered as a trailblazer,
mostly because it’s remembered as the “boring movie” with nice visuals. But on this 40th anniversary, it’s worth re-watching.
The questions it raises about artificial intelligence and what it means to be “self-aware”, not to mention a depiction of a future that could actually come about some day (almost being almost destroyed by machines
of our own creation) are more relevant today than they were when the movie was released in 1979. In fact, in the next 40 years, on its 80th
anniversary, ST:TMP may end up being the most relevant of all the Star Trek incarnations!
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